Inquiry into future of teacher training needed
The dust is still settling after the bruising inquiry into allegations of interference by senior officials with academic freedom and the institutional autonomy of the Hong Kong Institute of Education. However, the exposure to public scrutiny of powerful conflicting views on how we should train our teachers can be seen as a positive. It is now time for the community to take a close look at the future of teacher education in Hong Kong - the underlying cause of the tension between the government and HKIEd officials that led to the allegations.
A shift in the government's attitude to teacher training lay behind claims that the HKIEd was being pressured to merge with Chinese University. The origins of the conflict are to be found in the dramatic expansion of tertiary education over the past two decades. Until then, many talented students who failed to gain entry to university degree courses enrolled in one of the four former colleges of education, enriching the supply of qualified teachers. Wider access to university degree courses cut off this source.
During the 1990s, the government upgraded teacher training by merging the colleges of education into the HKIEd. The institute's role has been further enhanced by the right to confer degrees. However, it is still not known as a university, which is seen as a problem in terms of public image and interaction with other teacher-training institutions in this part of the world. Less able students have been training to become teachers in recent years. This is put down, at least in part, to the perception that teachers are not seen to be getting a degree from a proper university.
The government has come round to the view that training teachers at a specialised institute is no longer the best way forward. A merger with a university, for example, would expose trainee teachers to a broader range of experiences.
The situation in which the HKIEd found itself is therefore not without irony. Unfortunately, the interference row has done further damage to its image. As we report today, the institute is seeking to ensure its future with a vision for a university of education, to be presented to the government along with a bid for university status.
Whatever the merits of the rival schools of thought about the best way of recruiting and training teachers in a competitive market - with dedicated teacher-training institutions or through integration with universities - the issue should be settled quickly, for the sake of students, teachers and the quality of school education. The longer such a fundamental disagreement remains unresolved, the more serious the implications for all three.
An inquiry to consider the views of all the stakeholders, not least the community, on the training of the teachers who prepare our children for lifelong learning is now the best way forward. There is, for example, room for more co-ordination among universities, some of which offer post-graduate and part-time programmes.
Proper, transparent consultation on any proposals for change would safeguard the core value of institutional autonomy. That said, autonomy has limits that can be a fine line. There is no question that the government should not interfere in day-to-day operations and leave academics to think freely and exercise autonomy in the use of public resources to achieve policy objectives. At the same time, academics must function within a broad policy framework set out by the government.
Respect on both sides for the principle of autonomy is fundamental to academic freedom.